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TORRANCE, Calif. - An online auto reviewer recently testing out the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid summarily asked, "What's the point of a $94,570 hybrid luxury sedan?"
I've also fielded snippy remarks along the lines of how dare such a pricey, luxury vehicle call itself a hybrid; no green merit badges for this impostor! So therein lingers the dilemma of the got-to-get-green-now culture in the U.S.: The harder people try to go green, the snottier the self-appointed eco-police become.
Which prompts another question: What will ever be good enough for the insatiable eco-purists among us - if not a big luxury hybrid, then an electric motor-scooter powered by a windmill?
Balance in the Machine
Hands down, the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid achieves what I like to call eco-econ-balance; it reconciles the ecological needs to save gas and further clean up the cleanest air over America in decades, with our primal, deep, economic desires for comfort, convenience, and safety.
To put into ever popular Oprah-speak: A balance of needs with desires that makes for a satisfying transportive relationship.
So, let's spend the remainder of this ink and tree slivers on explaining a "point" or two, or sense of purpose for the richly-endowed supermodel of a car, the 2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid, and what it all means for those ponderously inclined.
Why is it Here?
First, let's be clear on why a $105,000 hybrid vehicle (the one I tested had lots of options) exists in the first place. Well, we've sustained a decade-plus worth of hysteria about global warming, government driven green mandates, hectoring from environmental zealots, Al Gore, and celebrity driven eco-poser-trendiness. Mercedes-Benz, like every other automaker, made a logical calculation and delivered a rational ASAP response: Bring a supply of alternative fuel vehicles to market in response to "demanding" demand for greener vehicles and lifestyles.
But some funny things have happened on the way to Holy Green Grail. Climate change consensus has collapsed amid academic/data scandals, and global warming looks more and more like the offspring of global cooling 30 years ago. Far from surrendering to the monkish Mother Earth values of ascetic servitude to nature, we're getting back to those all-American automotive values that save us: technology, innovation, and efficiency.
So what we have here is a supremely engineered luxury vehicle that lacks for nothing, except just two more cylinders, since hybrid technology has not yet rendered itself fully compatible with a high-performance V-8 engine. However, the ample legroom, supportive leather seats, solid, smooth ride, attentive climate control, bathe-you-in-bubbles entertainment, and aesthetic appeal should deliver the complete luxury wheels experience to any discriminating client willing to pay the rates needed to sustain this green vehicle - from a business standpoint. (See sidebar fact boxes for all the stats).
Steering for Pleasure
From a motorist perspective, the purpose of the S400 Hybrid is simple enough: Enjoy driving a vehicle that saves some gas and cuts pollutants. Those are always worthwhile goals, regardless of the state of our weather.
Maneuvering the S400 Hybrid feels like the "hybrid" experience of a power boat, a tank, and a roller-coaster for kiddies - not as agile and exhilarating as a sports sedan but not as boring as a typical, swervy full-figured rental car.
I know this because I took my test vehicle down a version of what I like to call a motorist's "Lovers Lane." In my case, it is a dark, curvy, divided uphill roadway near my home with no cops, where you can do devious things in the dark with your vehicle - just you and the engine enjoying the freedom from the prying eyes of cops, parents, or environmentalists. I took the S400 up to a high speed on the winding uphill that falls into a much lower speed zone. With the gears in "S" sport mode, the S400 just rocks and surges - its suspension/stabilizer system make it glide and lean with aplomb, uphill, downhill, and all gradiants in between. The S400 Hybrid would not be a winner, but definitely a finalist, on "Dancing With The Cars."
Smart Enough to be Smart Alecky
In fact, this is the real "smart car." Forget that oval bugaboo on wheels, now known as the Smart Car, also the most unchauffeurable car on the road. What is so intel ligent anyway about an MRI chamber on wheels that could be rendered a metallic saucer in a head-on crash with even a little Toyota Prius? When I see a Smart Car, I want to hide it in the next Easter egg hunt.
Truly "smart" vehicles, such as the S400 Hybrid, are those that make you feel like you're having your cake and eating it too, but then make everyone else think you are responsibly nibbling on organic food for a higher purpose. The S400 certainly meets that requirement; like other green luxury vehicles it makes the bold statement that we should sacrifice nothing in the zeal to go green. If greenies don't consider a vehicle green enough, then we'll need to be patient and trust that innovation will take care of the gap. Combustion engines, for example, have become much cleaner and more efficient since the 1970s.
Notable amenities: The Comand dashboard display system controlled through an ergonomically designed tilting hand-dial on the center console with resting pad allows you to easily toggle in Windows-menu fashion among satellite radio, CDs, GPS Navigation, engine power displays, sound controls, etc. All the info appears on a central color dashboard screen, easy to read, easy to navigate. The seats are back friendly, with all the right support in the right places, swaddled in black leather.
Some drawbacks: The trunk space is slightly smaller than that of a Lincoln Town Car (19.8 vs. 21.2 cubic feet); the cost of an S400 far surpasses those of a Lincoln Town Car and Cadillac DTS; while the V6 is adequate for power, you notice it's not a V8; the transmission stalk requires thoughtful coordination; and the 3 mpg combined city/highway gas savings compared to the S550 V-8 will never, even in a few decades, make up for the added cost premium of the hybrid version.
Happy Green Trails to You
Now back to a sense of purpose, or a deeper point, if you will, about the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid. This eco-vehicle would be ideally suited for a Friday night of cruising around Walden Pond; it certainly would turn plenty of heads among the Thoreau-loving habitat. Its silent battery power when idling would make it easy to roll down the power windows to flirt with and invite any eco-gawkers for a ride.
The S400 Hybrid reminds us that while this planet may be lonely with lots of vast empty green spaces, we can always figure out how to live a little leaner, but never less luxurious.
2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid Specs
Vehicle type: 4-door, 5 passenger sedan
Chassis: Steel unit body, except for front fenders, doors, trunk lid
Combustion engine: 90-degree V6; 275 hp @ 6,000 rpm; four valves per cylinder
Hybrid module: 120 volt lithium ion battery; 20 hp, 118 torque
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 124.6 in.
Width: 73.7 in.
Length: 206.5 in.
Height: 58 in.
Ground clearance: 5.75 in.
Curb weight: 4,474 lbs.
Front leg room: 41.9 in.
Rear leg room: 42.3 in.
Front head room: 37.8 in.
Rear head room: 38.5 in.
Trunk space: 19.8 cu. ft.
[Note: Vehicle has a sunroof]
Fuel tank capacity: 23.8 gallons
Gas mileage: 19 city/26 highway/21 comb.
S550 (all combustion engine) mileage: 15 city/23 highway/ 18 combined
Top speed: 130 mph
Price of vehicle tested: $105,230 (taxes and license fees not included)
IRS alternative-powertrain tax credit: $1,150 annual
[Note: Price includes premium package, driver assistance package, rear seat package, rear seat entertainment package - total packages cost: $13,290]
Source: Mercedes-Benz USA
My Weekly Results
Miles driven: 309
Total engine running time: 13 hours
Average mpg: 19.2
Gas usage: just under ¼ tank left
Making A Profit With The Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid
If an operator bought this vehicle for chauffeured service, what would the numbers have to look like to make the vehicle profitable on its own?
Source: Rose Chauffeured Transportation, Charlotte, N.C.
— if not a big luxury hybrid, then an electric motor-scooter powered by a windmill?
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